New BFI season announced – Thirst: Female Desire on Screen

Thirst will flip the switch on a century of the male gaze and find space for women's own lust and sexual expression in film.

13 February 2020

Magic Mike XXL (2015)

The BFI today announces details of Thirst: Female Desire on Screen, a season of films running at BFI Southbank from 1-30 April. Thirst will flip the switch on a century of the male gaze and find space for women’s own lust and sexual expression in film; from wild Hollywood classics of the pre-code era to unabashed celebrations of the male body that leave women flocking to the cinema in droves.

The season coincides with the publishing of a new book of essays She Found It at the Movies – Women Writers on Sex, Desire and Cinema, edited by film and culture writer, Christina Newland, who has also programmed the season. Thirst takes its name from a buzzword which in this context describes intense lust and the expression of that lust – a subject which has been popularised online by a proliferation of think pieces and thirsty tweets and by influential podcast Thirst Aid Kit, in which hosts Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins dig deep into the various ways women express their desire.

Thirst includes screenings of films that explore the complicated relationship between fantasy, feminism and desire, such as In the Cut (Jane Campion, 2003) and Instinct (Halina Reijn, 2019) and tales of teen sexual awakening like Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, 2014), and Turn Me On, Damnit! (Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, 2011). Also screening are queer love stories like Bound (Wachowski sisters, 1996) and Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011) as well as mainstream films starring male pin-ups and matinee idols like Dirty Dancing (Emile Ardolino, 1987) and Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, 2015).

“Movies have long influenced the way we think about sex,” says Newland. “For women, those formative crushes often give us room to think about our more unspoken desires or preferences in a safe environment, communing with the fiction playing out on screen. For some women (including me), it’s a rare comfortable space to explore a relationship with desire. Films are a dream space, allowing room for elaborate sexual fantasia neither as blunt nor as frowned upon as pornography. It’s the reason why fanfiction exists, why teen pinups and matinee idols are reliable bellwethers for every generation’s adolescence. From Rudolph Valentino to Marilyn Monroe to Chris Hemsworth, they’ve been with us for a century.” 

Special events in the programme

Thirst kicks off on Wednesday 1 April with a Season Introduction and Book Launch, celebrating the release of She Found It at the Movies (available to purchase in the BFI Shop). Alongside Christina Newland, the launch will welcome a selection of the book’s contributors to the stage to discuss key themes and films featured within the season, asking what it means to be a thirsty cinema-going woman.

Halina Reijn, director of the provocative and debate-inspiring Instinct (2019), which touches on the uncomfortable line between consent, danger and animalistic desire, will take part in a Q&A following a screening of the film on Thursday 23 April.

Throughout the season, there will be multiple opportunities to join the thirsty debate including Still Thirsty? A Conversation Series – weekly post-screening discussions about the film that has just been screened. The conversation series, which will be free to ticket-holders of the film and will take place every Tuesday night in April, will include evenings dedicated to In the Cut (hosted by film critic Simran Hans), Bound (hosted by producer-director Catherine Bray), The Way We Were (hosted by season programmer Christina Newland) and Pariah (hosted by film writer and programmer Grace Barber-Plentie).

The Way We Were (1973)

BFI Southbank’s regular Hot Take series returns on Wednesday 22 April with The Hot Take: Is There Such a Thing as Ethical Thirst? in which guests speakers and the audience will debate what it means to desire a ‘problematic’ man of the silver screen, addressing whether audiences can reconcile their feminist beliefs with the often-knotty issue of desire

In contrast, the BFI Quiz: Thirst! on Friday 24 April will lighten the mood with the ultimate thirsty quiz, testing how well teams know their matinee idols and dreamboats, heartthrobs and head-turners; an evening of cinematic sexiness and fun, co-hosted by season programmer Christina Newland.

Thirst will seek to encourage discussion about the female viewers’ relationship with movie-going, welcoming female and female identifying audiences to experience a sex-positive examination of the movies, taking pleasure in shamelessly ogling their onscreen desire and finding joyous and consensual pleasure in the female gaze.

Full details of films screening in Thirst


In the loose and wild days of early 1930s Hollywood, before enforcement of the Hays censorship code, Ernst Lubitsch’s sophisticated romantic comedies were progressive and sexually frank. Few were as daring as Design for Living (1933), starring Miriam Hopkins as an artist who rejects monogamy for a ménage à trois with two distinctly handsome men, played by Gary Cooper and Fredric March.

Design for Living (1933)

Sydney Pollack’s beloved romantic melodrama The Way We Were (1973) stars Barbra Streisand as a bookish lefty and Robert Redford as a golden-haired jock – their challenging love affair set against the Red Scare in Hollywood. It is a perfectly cast, heartbreaking film about female yearning, and the difficulties associated with it, using the power of movie-star chemistry to woo the audience. A cultural phenomenon, Dirty Dancing (Emile Ardolino, 1987) made Patrick Swayze a sex symbol and a sensual focus for the female gaze. As the camera ogles his graceful physicality, the story itself offers a counter-narrative to traditional ideas about women and sex often seen in movies, including its pro-choice messaging. Jennifer Grey’s Baby is a plucky, desirous feminist hero who offers ‘everywoman’ identification for her audience.

Strippers and sex-positivity

Also screening is Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, 2015), the smash-hit sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012), starring Channing Tatum, a pair of films which had women flocking to the cinema in droves and spawned a hugely successful live strip show. Offering a diverse, open-minded, and sex-positive portrayal of a group of male strippers on their way to one last stripping convention, Magic Mike XXL celebrates tender male friendship as much as it does the hunks who get satisfaction from giving women pleasure.

A perfect pairing with Magic Mike XXL is This One’s for the Ladies (Gene Graham, 2018), a feel-good, risqué documentary following a crew of male strippers and their adoring female audiences, highlighting a sense of love and community within the exotic dancing scene. With names like ‘Double Trouble’ and ‘Poundcake’, these black men – and one woman – entice and give pleasure to their audiences in a feedback loop of fun, while dispersing stereotypes about black masculinity and female sexuality all at once.

Desire in erotic thrillers

In the Cut (2003)

The season will address the complex relationship between fantasy, feminism, and desire with screenings such as Jane Campion’s erotic thriller In the Cut (2003). Caught up in the investigation of a series of grisly murders in her neighborhood, Meg Ryan’s Frannie falls hard for a homicide detective and homme fatale played by Mark Ruffalo. The film throws convention out the window with its departure from Ryan’s ‘good girl’ roles and genuinely titillating sex scenes that privilege a female perspective. There will also be preview screenings of Halina Reijn’s as-yet unreleased Instinct (2019), which premiered in the BFI London Film Festival 2019. Reijn’s debut feature sees an experienced criminal psychologist who is working in a secure unit for sex offenders finding herself suddenly and intensely infatuated with one of her patients, a violent rapist. Touching on the uncomfortable line between consent, danger and animalistic desire, Instinct is a provocative and debate-inspiring exploration of a woman’s lust at its most extreme.

Queer love stories

Bound (1996)

Directed by the remarkable proto-feminist director Leontine Sagan, Mädchen in Uniform (1931) might be ground zero for lesbian films. With its all-female cast and first narrative depiction of a lesbian kiss, the film was later banned by the Nazis for ‘decadence’. Even with age, it’s still a remarkable and radical document, setting a forbidden student-teacher love against the suggestive backdrop of a girls’ boarding school. The Wachowski’s debut feature Bound (1996) stars Jennifer Tilly as Violet, a gangster’s moll to Joe Pantoliano’s Ceasar. Their dysfunctional dynamic is interrupted by lesbian ex-con Corky, played by Gina Gershon, whose seduction of Violet comes with a plan to steal money from the mob. This violent neo-noir puts a rare focus on two women who not only unapologetically enjoy sex, but enjoy it with each other. From Mudbound director Dee Rees, Pariah (2011) tells the story of a young black woman coming to terms with her lesbian identity, and fearing her parents’ reaction. Highlighting both the sensual pleasures and emotional pain of the protagonist’s sexual awakening, Pariah is as lyrical as it is sexually assertive as it moves from New York lesbian bars to a sterile dinner table in the family home.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

Teen sexual awakening

Marielle Heller’s debut Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) tells the audacious story of Minnie (Bel Powley), a teen girl growing up in San Francisco at the tail end of the 1970s. Minnie feels a growing attraction to her mother’s dirtbag boyfriend and an inappropriate affair begins between the two. The result is a pithy, funny film that’s honest about teen sex-drive in a way that’s usually reserved for boys. Completing the season is Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, 2011) a lean coming-of-age comedy about a horny teenage girl experimenting with her sexuality in her small Norwegian town. After calling a sex hotline, stealing porn, and having a strange run-in with a penis-wielding classmate, she is ostracised both at home and at school, but refuses to soften or disguise her lustiness.

Thirst takes place at BFI Southbank from 1-30 April 2020
16 to 25-year-olds can book £3 tickets in advance – part of BFI Southbank’s 25 & Under scheme – for the entire season (excludes special events)
She Found It at the Movies – Women Writers on Sex, Desire and Cinema is published by Red Press on 31 March 2020.

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